Friedrich Gustav Arvelius


Friedrich Gustav Arvelius (16./5. II 1753 – 25./13. VII 1806) was an Enlightenment-influenced Baltic-German theologian, pedagogue, playwright and poet, the author of Estonian chapbooks.

Arvelius’ father was of Finnish origin and the pastor at Viru-Nigula; his mother was German. He was born in Tallinn and grew up at Viru-Nigula. From 1769 to 1771 he attended Tallinn Dome School, and studied theology at the University of Leipzig from 1771 to 1775, where he came into contact with figures of the Enlightenment. Returning to Estonia, he worked for 14 years as a tutor at manor-houses in Virumaa county. In 1790 he became professor of theology at the Tallinn Gymnasium; later he was several times its rector. He died in Tallinn.

Arvelius is primarily known in Estonian culture as the author of two chapbooks. Üks kaunis Jutto- ja Öppetusse Ramat (‘A Beautiful Book of Stories and Lessons’, part 1, 1782; part 2, 1787) is an adaptation of the German pedagogue F.E. von Rochow’s school reader Der Kinderfreund (1773-1779) and was intended for children. The book contains about ten original stories, which to some extent describe the shabby life of Estonian peasant folk. This was the first Estonian school reader and children’s book. Ramma Josepi Hädda ja Abbi Ramat (‘Rama Josep’s book of ailment and aid’, 1790) was based on R.Z. Becker’s popular handbook Noth- und Hülfsbüchlein für Bauersleute (1788) and was intended for adult peasants. Arvelius maintained that the main reason for the wretched state of the peasantry was their ignorance and lack of education, and tried to offer the country folk some practical enlightenment. In the Jutto- ja Öppetusse Ramat there is an explanation in Estonian for the first time of the basics of astronomy, while at the same time urging obedience to the landowners. Even though, for example, Ramma Josepi Hädda ja Abbi Ramat was printed in 10,000 copies and distributed free, Arvelius’ books did not find favour with the people evidently because of their over-didactic tone. Arvelius’ language was based on the northern coastal dialect of his home district.

The Romantic attitude, which saw the Estonian language and culture as values in themselves, began to appear in Estonia in the first half of the 19th century. Arvelius, who lived in the 18th, had had the wish to improve the Estonian’s lot, but he wished to do that by way of their general education. This attitude was also evinced in Arvelius’ stance on language policy, which he expressed in his brochure Über die Kultur der estnischen Sprache (‘On the Culture of the Estonian Language’, 1792). In it Arvelius sharply criticises the poverty, faultiness and inappropriateness of the Estonian language for promoting intellectual enlightenment, and makes several radical suggestions for language reform.

Arvelius started his literary career in German, publishing pre-Romantic verse inspired by Bardic poetry under the pseudonym Sembard. He was also involved in the theatre, taking part in the activities of the Tallinn amateur theatre established by August von Kotzebue, and writing three plays in German: Elisa (1777), Lydia (1779) and Der Neujahrstag (‘New Year’s Day’, 1779).

S. V. (Translated by C. M.)

Selected bibliography

Plays in German
Elisa ein Duodrama in zween Aufzügen. Riga bey Johann Friedrich Hartknoch. Riga: J. F. Hartknoch, 1777, 60 lk.
Lydia. Ein Schauspiel für Kinder in dreien Aufzügen. Vom Verfasser der Elisa. Leipzig: A. F. Böhme, 1779, 144 lk.
Der Neujahrstag. Ein Nachspiel für Kinder in einem Aufzuge. Vom Verfasser der Elisa. Leipzig: A. F. Böhme, 1779, 72 lk.

Chapbooks in Estonian
Üks Kaunis Jutto- ja Öppetusse-Ramat: Söbbra polest, meie maa-laste heaks, ja nendele röömsaks ajawiiteks koggutud ja kokko pandud, kes aegsaste öppiwad luggema. Tallinn: 1782, 126 lk. [1. jagu. 2. trükk: 1791.]
Üks Kaunis Jutto- ja Öppetusse-Ramat: Söbbra polest, meie maa-laste heaks, ja nendele röömsaks ajawiiteks koggutud ja kokko pandud, kes aegsaste öppiwad luggema. 2. Jaggo. Tallinn: 1787, 152 lk. 

Ramma Josepi Hädda- ja Abbi-Ramat. Tallinn: Lindfors, 1792, 64 lk.